Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a small three-part series on publishing avenues. These posts will explore some advantages, drawbacks, difficulties, and benefits of various methods authors can use to produce, market, and ultimately sell their books.
The publishing arena is often divided into two courts: self-publishing and traditional publishing. These two are the most talked about and the easiest to categorize, so I will dedicate the first two posts to them. However, it’s important to recognize that there are limitless possibilities when it comes to how a book can be published, so I’d like to spend the third post in this series discussing some of the countless ways to step outside and transverse those two courts.
First, because it’s certainly been the hottest topic in publishing for the last decade, let’s talk about self-publishing. To begin, we’ll need to cross out what self-publishing isn’t. Self-publishing is not a place or a business. It is not a format or a medium. It is not ebooks, and it is not indie presses. It is not new, nor is it only recently possible. Self-publishing simply means the author calls the shots. It means there’s no publisher’s name or logo hogging space on the cover or in the front matter.
Every time I post a blog on this site through Blogspot, I am self-publishing. This may seem counterintuitive, since you might think Blogspot would be my publisher. But I am using Blogspot to publish my posts like a press, not submitting my writing to them to publish under their name. In the same way, you could go the traditional route and submit your manuscript to Acme Publishing Company, who may process it and send it out to ABC Press for printing, or you can skip the middleman and send your manuscript directly to ABC Press for printing, in which case you will have self-published.
So why does anyone use traditional publishing? For the same reason anyone ever uses a middleman: professional help. If ABC Press prints 2,000 copies of your manuscript for you, what do you do next? Well, first you have an enormous printing bill to pay, including some massive delivery charges unless you rent a U-Haul and go pick the books up yourself. Then you’re in possession of 2,000 books. How do you sell them? One by one to friends and family? Five copies at a time to local bookstores? It takes a long time for an individual author to sell 2,000 books. Publishing houses have lots of distribution connections, which is why they still dominate the publishing industry.
Going back to our negative definition, self-publishing isn’t new. It’s been utilized by notable authors like Walt Whitman (he already had printing experience when he self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, his first collection of poems, with only twelve poems in it), Edgar Allen Poe (only about 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems were produced, and they caused about as much excitement in the literary community as a match dropped in a puddle), and Irma Rombauer (whose famous cookbook The Joy of Cooking floated on 3,000 copies for five years before being picked up by a publisher). So why, if authors have been self-publishing for hundreds of years, is the topic such a big deal lately?
Technology has completely revamped the way we distribute goods and services. We went from watching plays, musicals, and operas to seeing movies on screen, renting VHS tapes and DVDs from the store, and streaming through Netflix. We went from going to see bands play at clubs to buying vinyl records, tapes, and CDs, then to downloading and streaming music online. And, of course, we went from print books to audiobooks to ebooks.
These digital formats present an unprecedented property: They can exist without ever occupying physical space. Because of this, they can be produced (and copied) for free. So, while the problem with self-publishing was once that a real product had to be financed (which obviously greatly restricted the number of people who were doing it), now anyone with access to a computer can write and publish a book.
But remember the problem with picking up your truckload of books from ABC Press? Distribution? Sales? Stocking? Publicity? Marketing? None of that has changed. Yes, now that we can all get free social media accounts and broadcast messages into the infinite interwebs, we can access marketing tools for free, but most authors don’t (or can’t) devote the time to using them the way professional social media managers do (thus the creation and rise of the career).
If AuthorHouse is to be taken as a standard example,
The average printed book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies, mostly to “pocket” markets surrounding the author–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order–and to the author him/herself.
Where self-publishing thrives and shines is in the small percentage of authors who take the largest slice of that pie. Although tens of thousands of authors are self-publishing books every year, if its statistics are to be believed, a study performed for self-publishing-course-offering site Taleist informs us that half of self-publishing writers earned less than $500 from it in 2011, while less than 10% dominated 75% of the cuts in a field with average earnings of $10,000. Yes, that is quite a curve.
Self-publishing authors, like musicians and actors, face an intimidating gap between people who can afford to write full time and people who aren’t dependent on its income. This cliff makes us sharply aware of the number of people who are secondary writers. This is possible because writing of any quality can be approached as a hobby. Yes, famous authors write relentlessly, practicing the skill for hours each day and disposing most of what they compose like a painter tossing sketches. But most writers don’t write to get famous, they write because they enjoy writing. Making money with it is isn’t the goal.
The data from Taleist is encouraging for those who don’t want to feel relegated to the “hobbyist” table, though. Bridging that gap can be done in huge steps through small investments.
Authors . . . would be well advised to spend time and money on making a title look professional, the survey found: self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%.
Of course, at just 1,007 authors surveyed in a field with over four million titles being released annually, the reliability of scaling representation is questionable. But whatever the overall numbers, more people than ever are publishing books right now. The field is exploding because even if financial success is still a question, getting published is not. Anyone can do it. So with that many people self-publishing, how many more are finding success in traditional publishing, how does the new division of sales spread out, and what practices have traditional publishers adopted to remain attractive and profitable to authors? We’ll take that up in as much depth next week.
 These statistics come from a 2010 Bowker report: http://www.paulmikos.com/2012/12/2012-year-of-self-publishing.html.